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Home | Newsroom | Housing | Fact check: Do all San Diego housing agencies see state tenant protection laws as irrelevant?

Fact check: Do all San Diego housing agencies see state tenant protection laws as irrelevant?

February 16, 2024

During a public meeting last November, a top elected official asked the San Diego Housing Commission to explain the findings of an inewsource investigation.

The Housing Commission, which is responsible for managing roughly $300 million in federal Section 8 housing vouchers to help low-income tenants pay rent, is required to ensure rent increases are reasonable before using taxpayer money to pay for them. But officials were approving rent hikes without checking if they exceed the cap in state law, the investigation revealed.

Jeff Davis, the Commission’s then-interim CEO, told elected leaders in that meeting the agency doesn’t think the state’s law protects voucher holders. He said all six public housing agencies in San Diego County, as well as “many, many other California housing authorities,” have been operating the same way.

But that’s not accurate.

Officials with three other public housing agencies — in Carlsbad, Encinitas and National City — say they have been checking to ensure landlords are following the state’s law, the California Tenant Protection Act, which took effect in 2020. The law sets a 10% maximum cap on rent increases within a 12-month period. Some properties are exempt, such as mobile homes, new developments and some single-family homes.

When asked by inewsource, officials with all three agencies said they review the housing characteristics each time a property owner wants to raise the rent on a tenant with a Section 8 voucher. Nonexempt properties are held to the state’s 10% maximum cap, they said.

Carlos Aguirre, director of the National City Housing Authority, said the Tenant Protection Act is a tool to keep rents reasonable. Not complying impacts the overall housing market as well as the agency’s ability to help low-income tenants pay rent.

“There’s an upward pressure on rents,” Aguirre said, adding that landlords are in the market of making a return on their investment. “So that’s a tool for us to make sure that our rents are not increasing to a point where there’s not even a market for Section 8 vouchers in National City.”

Officials with the San Diego Housing Commission, which serves 17,000 families as the region’s largest public housing agency, have viewed the law differently.

They have said they don’t have the authority to limit rent increases for tenants receiving federal assistance. Meanwhile, a pending lawsuit aims to force the agency’s compliance with state law and claw back any public money that was illegally paid to private landlords. The Housing Commission has since announced plans to cap rent hikes for voucher holders, instead billing it as a change in agency policy. But they say that change can’t take effect without approval from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, which oversees the Section 8 program.

Alternatively, officials in Carlsbad and National City started enforcing the law without approval from HUD. Officials in Oceanside and the county have also recently taken the same steps without HUD approval. inewsource is awaiting Encinitas’ response to the same question.

“Most housing authorities across the state at this point are complying” with state law, said Madeline Howard, a senior attorney with Western Center on Law and Poverty. “So, to the extent that San Diego is saying everybody else is doing a bad job, that’s not true.”

Residential and commercial buildings in National City are shown on, Feb. 14, 2024. (Zoë Meyers/inewsource)

‘That affects the local market.’

Public housing agencies are responsible for managing the federal Section 8 program — one of the most significant safety nets for low-income residents anywhere in the U.S. — and are required to ensure rent increases are in line with the market and adhere to applicable laws.

But when the California Tenant Protection Act took effect in 2020, it set off a yearslong legal debate about whether those state protections extend to federal voucher holders.

Conflicting interpretations of law in state government

In an attempt to settle the debate last summer, California Attorney General Rob Bonta sent a letter to every public housing agency in the state. He said the law clearly protects voucher holders and warned officials to stop approving unlawful rent increases on low-income families the federal program was intended to protect.

Aguirre, the director in National City, said he had no doubt that the Tenant Protection Act applies to Section 8 voucher holders. National City’s housing agency has taken that stance since the law took effect in 2020.

The agency even has a form letter it sends property owners to remind them of the law, informing them of notice requirements and outlining the state’s 10% cap on increases.

“It’s the law,” he said. “They have to abide by it.”

Comparing the cities

The housing authorities in Carlsbad, Encinitas and National City are much smaller, serving far fewer low-income families — about 1,700 combined, a fraction compared to the 17,000 families served in San Diego.

Some properties are exempt from state law, such as mobile homes, new developments and some single-family homes. But in late 2022, National City passed an ordinance extending the state’s cap to include mobile home parks, following complaints from residents.

The National City Housing Authority uses roughly $13 million every year in Section 8 housing vouchers to help about 1,100 low-income families pay rent. Aguirre said almost every landlord in the program asks to raise the rent every year, and six people are tasked with reviewing those requests.

And when a request comes in, Aguirre said his team checks every time whether a property is exempt to ensure compliance with state law before approving it.

“Every Section 8 housing specialist (in National City) is well aware of those exemptions, and our Section 8 manager as well,” Aguirre said, adding that following the law plays an important role in slowing the rise in rent. “If we didn’t call attention to it, then we have this upward pressure that affects the local market.”

Officials in Carlsbad say they have taken the same approach — at least since late 2021, when the agency’s current leadership took over, said Christian Gutierrez, housing services manager.

Carlsbad Village is shown on Feb. 14, 2024. (Zoë Meyers/inewsource) Credit: Zoë Meyers/inewsource

Carlsbad’s housing authority is about half the size of National City’s, serving roughly 500 low-income households with about $8 million to spend every year in federal vouchers. Two people are responsible for reviewing rent increase requests, Gutierrez said.

Any time a landlord wants to raise the rent, officials start by checking the math on any increases over the past 12 months. They also check housing characteristics to see if the property is exempt only if the proposed increase exceeds the state’s 10% cap, Gutierrez said.

Housing officials in Encinitas didn’t start checking compliance until after they received Bonta’s letter last June, according to city spokesperson Lois Yum.

The Encinitas Housing Authority gives out about $1.3 million every year in federal housing vouchers to help roughly 100 households pay rent.

Between January 2020 and November 2023, records show nearly one out of every 12 rent increases for Section 8 voucher holders living in Encinitas exceeded the state’s cap. A couple increases were as high as 35%.

But officials said they took immediate steps to ensure compliance after Bonta’s letter, Yum said. They developed a tool to check the percentage for each increase and started checking housing characteristics to see if the property was exempt.

And for all of the increases that already exceeded the state’s cap, Yum said they have since been adjusted to bring everyone in compliance.